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Enabling Employee Advocacy: Another View

BY mikeklein Over the years, I have published a number of pieces about the emerging role of employees as an external communication channel, and of how internal and external communication are converging.

My Canadian friend and occasional debating partner Judy Gombita takes another view.

In a substantial, well-written post in PR Conversations, Judy highlights a number of legitimate concerns about actively mobilising employees to advocate a company and its products on their own social accounts and in their own communities.

A good point, but…

Judy makes a good point—employee advocacy programmes which are clearly contrived or coerced can be damaging to company relationships  with employees and customers alike.

But there is one massive thing she misses out:  that much employee advocacy is employee-initiated, either as an outcome of natural interactions between an employee and people in their own communities, or a result of an employee’s desire to help the organisation on his or her own time.

Enabling Natural Interactions

Like it or not, employees represent the public face of any organisation, even those with rock-star CEOs or KGB-style message management. They are continually asked about their work, and about their companies’ products, services, cultures and corporate behaviour.

Ensuring that employees are well-prepared for those conversations is hardly contrived or coerced.  Making sure that employees know the necessary facts and the boundaries of organisational messaging is conscientious, and indeed, compassionate.

It is conscientious because, given that hundreds of conversations between employees and the public occur daily, making sure employees understand key company messages can minimise unintentional and costly reputational errors.

It is compassionate because, for those employees who want to “do the right thing”, giving them a working definition of “the right thing” can be a bit useful.

Unleashing Employee Goodwill

In some cases, employee advocacy is employee generated—and actively seeks corporate support.  This is hardly far-fetched:  in the mobile industry, where I currently work, companies are heavily branded and are locked in fierce competition in each country.  Team and company spirit can be very high, and it is not unknown for employees to show their pride and champion their brand in their communities.  Enlightened self-interest is a main driver:  employees are not only proud of their brand identities, but know the positive difference even a small shift in market share can make.

Enabling, not Enforcing

External employee advocacy, when employee-initiated, can be genuine, powerful, mutually enriching and commercially valuable.  It is also an increasingly important element of the corporate communication picture.  While it may be unwise to try to stimulate or incentivise it artificially, it is even more unwise to discourage what is likely to happen anyways, starve it of the information and message guidance it requires, or deprive it of needed organisational support when it is asked for. Employee advocacy should not be enforced, but it should definitely be enabled.

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5 thoughts on “Enabling Employee Advocacy: Another View”

  1. It’s always interesting to hear debate about a current buzzword concept from a different point of view, Mike.

    A few things I’d like to point out: In my post MORE than half of the time was devoted to internal subject experts on that actually have experience interacting with a wide variety of staff employed in a variety of roles, including transplanted Irishman Tom Murphy who has been at the Microsoft Redmond HQ for years. (And of course Microsoft owns Yammer….)

    Secondly, the word “advocacy” is being misused by so many marketers. It’s basis is a legal term, which will be explored in this week’s PR Conversations post (jointly authored by Italian Toni Muzi Falconi and New Zealander Helen Slater) on buzzwords. Probably because of the amount of informed debates on my Social sniff test post on the concept of “advocacy” and employee “engagement,” those two terms are dissected early by this formidable pair of smartypants.

    A third point I’d like to make is that marketers are appealing to the younger, “always on” generation. But there is a failure to recognize that they are likely the first to jump ship (when a more exciting opportunity comes along) AND that what you deem as employee “advocacy” may simply be a business form of a selfie. I’ve hashtagged it #businessselfie

    Lastly, I was listening to a CBC Radio program (The Current) when the discussion was going on about political “activism” or advocacy, particularly in regards to social media campaigns. It was partly what inspired my paragraph in my most-recent post (An abundant public relations era or its utilitarian autumn? http://ow.ly/xcBrg), the idea that feeling “empowered” to broadcast (about your cause, company, country, etc.) means very little in the great scheme of things:

    “Oh, and the need to break down company silos and allow employees to be “empowered” in social and turned into an army of mini Marketing Me’s, bursting through the virtual gates that the controlling corporate communications department erected. Of course what these same marketers fail to admit to employees is that feeling empowered to broadcast is not the same thing as having a say in things that really matter or being in control of anything of consequence…. Or that the end result (per the above Scott Monty quote) does anything to help build relationships with consumers and other stakeholders.”

    I would suggest to marketers, in the mobile business or elsewhere, Mike, to spend more time focusing on their (five P) strengths and less on thinking about trying to “incentivize” employees to do their work in social. As Augie Ray commented (based on his own experience at a number of significant companies, now with a Fortune 100 one):

    “I think a lot of [social media] folks tend to miss how little employees want to advocate or advertise on behalf of their employer. It’s a typical mistake. Even at brands with high consumer advocacy, employees have the same gripes and frustrations as employees elsewhere—they still have bosses and tight deadlines and wished they earned more. At the end of the day, it’s still a job!”

    I DO believe in involving more “internal” employees in the socialized expression of a company, but I think it should primarily relate to cross-functional teams of advisors on what would truly be the most relevant, useful and INTERESTING information to share. As I wrote in Social Sniff Test (right before my interview with Tom Murphy):

    “It is possible an organic social update from an ardent and engaged employee from IBM (or elsewhere), advocating about the company’s corporate character or beliefs systems or purpose or mission will catch my attention.

    Certainly more than it would from a “social media marketing tool” who half-heartedly shares “messages” or content crafted by sales or marketing, perhaps on the advice of an external consultant. Presumably the suggestion is made to staff in the (dubious) anticipation that their friends and family eagerly await such infomercials to consume and act upon.”

    But keep advocating otherwise, Mike! Time will tell whose opinion prevails.

    Cheers (and over to you),

  2. Interesting response–while you continue to attack orchestrated “advocacy”, the point of my piece is that unorchestrated advocacy needs to be enabled, if for no other reason that it is likely to happen anyways to some extent, even if that extent is as limited as your more pessimistic sources suggest. Also, your intimation of a Fortune 100 company as an example reflects a clear (North) American bias about worker apathy and alienation that, in my experience, is not the case elsewhere in the world.

  3. I’m going to point (UK internal communications subject expert and CIPR trainer) Kevin Ruck over here to deal with your “attack” and “orchestrated advocacy” argument, as well as your assertions that worker apathy and alienation are specific to North America. I say Fortune 100 because that is where the global American Express company ranks, in a shorthand that is understood by non-North Americans.

  4. Two things: I am not saying worker apathy and alienation are peculiarly (North) American symptoms, but that the willingness to advocate is higher, based on my experience, in some other geographies. I also find the resistance to employee advocacy among “PR” types a bit curious…

  5. It’s unclear what constitutes a “PR” type. I do notice a fair number of people (from different countries) who make the claim of being a hybrid “internal communications” and “social business” specialist consultant, hoping to ride the back of Marketing Mini Me’s in social. Far, far, far less so than from the F/T in-house staff (particularly at the senior level). 🙂

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